Tampa. Where’s the festal atmosphere one looks for at a political convention? Here at the 2012 Republican National Convention, there are a few impediments to achieving that Good Feeling, that glow of bonhomous enthusiasm that, I should have thought, the organizers would have sought to instill in the madding crowds that are descending on the event.
What are those impediments? They can be divided into two basic categories: meteorological and megalomaniacal.
The meteorological has just swept through in the form of Hurricane Isaac. The apocalyptic hysteria emanating from the weather channels seems to have been, once again, completely overblown (pardon the pun), at least for Tampa, but there is a goodly amount of rain beating down upon us as I write. Most of today’s events have been rescheduled for later in the week and there is a general air of discombobulation. What Isaac will mean for points West and North is still up in the air (literally, I suppose) and is providing grounds for the usual weather hysteria machine to grind away. Will it be another Katrina, swamping New Orleans? All the news channels keep asking that. But what I’d like to know is, let’s say Isaac is another Katrina, will the media blame Barack Obama as it once blamed George W. Bush for the hurricane? And, even more, why in heaven’s name did someone build a city below sea level on the Gulf of Mexico, or, once built, why did they leave it there?
We know the answer to the first and we’ll never get a satisfactory answer to the second, so let me proceed to the other main reason the mood in Tampa is less than celebratory: megalomania. It’s not your common or garden-variety megalomania, I hasten to add, but is rather a compound of watching too many television dramas about terrorism, on the one hand, and what I suspect is Chicago-style political tactics, on the other.
What I am talking about is the preposterous level of security that greets the visitor to the convention, even the credentialed press visitor, whose grumbling ranks I am helping to swell. Many streets in downtown Tampa are closed. The event is taking place not in one but in two separate buildings, a convention center and the Forum. I’d guess they are about a quarter of a mile from each other. The entire area surrounding the buildings is cordoned off with a maze of high fences and security check points and patrolling guards from, I’m told, 60 separate law-enforcement agencies. I’ve seen scores of Secret Service agents, FBI agents, state troopers, military soldiers, local policemen, and TSA agents. They’re on foot, on bicycles, on horse back, aboard golf carts, in SUVs, and God-knows what else. It took my party about 40 minutes to get into the Forum for a media gathering last night, not because there were long lines — those will come later — but because we had to park about three quarters of a mile from the building and then walk through a warren of security checks. One friend told me he’d been through 5 separate checks before he was let in and handed a lukewarm Coors Light. “Never seen anything like it,” said this veteran of several national political conventions.
So the question is, Why? Why is the RNC doing this? Or, more to the point, is it the RNC that is doing this? There was a rumor abroad that the stepped-up security (it reminded one ex-military observer of Bagdhad) was not the RNC’s doing but the federal government’s. Anarchists, you see, had threatened to disrupt the proceedings, so someone declared the event a national security emergency and clamped down hard.
What sort of threat do the anarchists actually pose? you might ask. I asked, and haven’t gotten much of a reply. I’ve been looking around for anarchists but have so far failed to turn up even one. Maybe anarchists, like the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz, are deathly allergic to water. Some paranoid, conspiracy-minded folk have put it about that the onerous, spirit-dampening security was foisted upon the event by scheming Obamanites deliberately to taint the party spirit. I do not necessarily endorse this low thinking, I merely acknowledge that the idea has been floated and talked about. And I note further that, as the poet Delmore Schwartz once observed, even paranoids have enemies.
The security arrangements at the convention are over the top, onerous, and almost comic in their look-at-me,-I’m-wearing-SWAT-gear swagger. But maybe the most disconcerting aspect of the affair is the two-tier, us-and-them, plebs-and-elites aroma that suffuses the event. Almost everyone is herded, cattle-like, through the security maze. Anyone who is let into the fenced-in enclosure has a bouquet of badges hung around his neck. But some few have badges that bear the legend “perimeter access,” and they get special treatment. A tiny elite is ostentatiously whisked through on golf carts or in limos, just as they are in various Latin American or Soviet-era despotisms. It’s the ostentation of the disparity that rankles.
People like me — knuckle-dragging, right-wing haters — often bemoan the cancerous growth of government. Usually, we’re talking about the government payroll, the government debt, the proliferation of government agencies, the explosion of government rules and regulations and the regiments of bureaucrats needed to force “compliance” with all those rules and regulations.
All that is real and it provides plenty of grounds for concern. But there is another aspect to the out-of-control growth of government, and that is the growth of the government’s security superstructure, all those motorcades, and tactical squads that descend upon cities, closing the airports, commandeering buildings, rerouting (and snarling up) traffic, and generally throwing their weight around and using the sharp, pointy edge of their police powers to intimidate and inconvenience people — the very people, they like to forget, who pay their salaries and in whose employ they ultimately labor.
I have no idea who is ultimately responsible for the unpleasant and unnecessary security nightmare that has been assembled in Tampa. Knowing the Obama administration as I do, I would not put it past them to have had a hand in in it. But before the Republican love fest starts in earnest — and let me say I am intending to emit as much good cheer as anyone — it is worth pausing to acknowledge that the unseemly growth of government is as much a Republican problem as it is a Democratic problem. Of course, one needs to be careful. We live in a dangerous world. There are a lot of bad guys out there who mean us, and our leaders, ill. But the most effective security is usually the least obtrusive. Over the last couple of decades we have let our politicians arrogate more and more of the trappings of despotic power to themselves. It’s unattractive and, I’d say, downright un-American. I hope that when Mitt Romney becomes president, he will do something about it.
Random concluding observation: I note that my hotel room provides for my edification not only a Bible placed by the Gideons but also a copy of the Book of Mormon placed by I-know-not-whom. An innovation put in place by the sensitive souls running the RNC or is it a wider-ranging development? I do not know the answer to that, but I found it interesting.
See more of PJM’s coverage of the RNC:
Roger L. Simon: Fear and Shame on the Campaign Trail #6 — Who’ll Stop the Rain?